Upgrading Cyberpunk in Iris Jay’s ‘Crossed Wires’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Sometimes hacking takes you to sprawling conspiracies. Sometimes it takes you to suggestive Mickey Mouse-inspired roleplay. In Iris Jay's Crossed Wires, it could go either way. ComicsAlliance chatted with Jay about their webcomic, the meaning of "cyber-postpunk," and the challenges of orchestrating the current Kickstarter for the project.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Crossed Wires? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Iris Jay: I've always dug cyberpunk and throwback computer culture stuff --- movies, books, games, everything --- but there's a lot of gungy outdated baggage that often comes with the genre and time period. I call Crossed Wires "cyber-postpunk" on promotional material because I want it to feel like a revised, expanded take on the cyberpunk genre that draws from a broader range of modern voices and influences.
CA: You mention outdated genre baggage and wanting to expand and revise within the genre. Could you talk about what you wanted to leave behind and what you wanted to add and explore?
IJ: The cyberpunk gestalt came together in the '80s and early '90s as a sardonic glance ten minutes into the future, positing that even if the world becomes a shattered, corporate-controlled dystopia, there'll always be a way for the marginalized to survive with a little tech savvy and a do-it-yourself attitude. This core philosophy is still fantastic, and I feel like it really lines up with a lot of queer ethos, both at the time and today (a topic I wrote about in more detail on why the movie Hackers is still important over on my blog).
There were a lot of queer people into cyberpunk back then, too --- we've always been sci-fi fans, computer innovators, early adapters, stuff like that. But as with all nerd culture, it was a product of its time, and it had its share of really cringeworthy content too --- stuff like crummy gender politics, broad cultural appropriation, and a conflicted love-hate relationship with unchecked capitalism.
I've watched so many movies and read so many stories where the characters and plot are just a limp excuse to draw cool costumes engaging in stylish, futuristic violence, tidily packaged to sell to an 18 to 34 year old cis het white male demographic. That sucks! Our modern electronic diaspora is a lot more diverse and intelligent (though we're still as queer as ever!), and we deserve more stories that reflect our own experiences.
CA: What’s it about?
IJ: Crossed Wires is a story set in a world very much like our own, but where virtual interactivity has been built into the Internet since the early '80s. It centers around two hackers, headstrong novice Alan (aka Ultra Drakken) and mysterious elite Theresa (aka Vrrmn). They start as rivals, but soon team up to unravel a mysterious conspiracy decades in the making.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
IJ: I'd say this is definitely an Older Teen rated story, like age 16 and up --- it's about college-age kids on the internet, so there's a lot of cusses, and there's a little bit of drug use and virtual violence in there too. Also, I market the book to queer audiences a lot, because most of its main cast falls inside the quiltbag in one way or another, and because we deserve our loud, rowdy action stories too, dang it!
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
IJ: I started the comic in 2014, and since then our world has only gotten more bonkers. We've mostly been thinking about hackers this election year as shadowy, ruthless and politically motivated, and it's weird to juxtapose that image with the Douglas Ruskoff idea of hackers being these cheeky scofflaws whose only crime is curiosity.
As we learn more about Crossed Wires's characters, I want to make clear that everyone has a different reason for picking up a VR rig and breaking some rules --- selfish, altruistic, anarchistic, mercenary, and everything in between. It's not as clear cut as "cool rebel kids vs. corporate dystopians."
CA: How did you develop the visual design of the hacking world within Crossed Wires? The avatar designs, worlds, and even onomatopoeia fonts (there's a Pac-Man-inspired "Socko!" I particularly enjoy), are really unique.
IJ: When like 90% of people try to do cyberpunk stuff, they either rip off Blade Runner or they rip off Tron, so with Crossed Wires I'm trying to avoid leaning on too many blatant stylistic references.
Instead, I was much more heavily inspired by prototype virtual social environments like MUCKs, Worlds, Second Life, Furcadia --- spaces where you can look, sound and move however you want, and the local geography is subject to its residents' tastes and personality. That's how you can get real pointy-looking stealth avatars like Vrrmn's rubbing shoulders with cutesy cartoon ones like Orbit's, or creepily almost-human ones like Aram Schiele's.
There really isn't anything defining what the inside of a server can look like in Crossed Wires either, but on the outside they're these huge crystals because they grow outward depending on how big they get and what they're used for. (Also thanks, I like that one "socko" too!!)
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
IJ: I've been putting comics on the internet since I was in high school after blowing the spine out of my local library's copy of Reinventing Comics from repeated rereads. It's still a good book! Some of its predictions are a little janky in hindsight, but the picture it painted of webcomics was a dazzling endless realm of untapped possibility. Webcomics were a way for lone artists to get their work in front of millions of readers without chucking it into the meat grinder of the comics industry, and that's the exact reason why the scene is so incredibly diverse and thriving today.
Re: my platform: My site uses Wordpress with a simple Comicpress theme installed over it, because I don't like futzing around with too many extraneous web design details (or, more accurately, asking my web-savvy husband to do it).
CA: What’s your process like?
IJ: I have the story's beats planned out entirely in advance, though they're under constant revision. Scripts I usually write in blocks of about 20 pages at a time, and pages I try to finish at least a couple days before they get posted. All of Crossed Wires' pages are pencilled, inked and lettered traditionally, then brought into Photoshop for cleanup and tones. I like traditional comic art because there's always a touch of the unexpected in it... and because I don't really enjoy frying my eyes on a backlit screen while fiddling with a Wacom for hours on end.
CA: What research have you had to do for the comic? Did you start off with a knowledge base in technology and hacking?
IJ: I only know the teeny-tiniest little bit of actual coding --- I've never quite had the patience --- but I've read, watched and played just a shameful amount of weird computer-related media.
I remember when I was a little kid I was always entranced by mid-'90s issues of Wired magazine: the weird typography, the flippant articles, the far-out predictions for what tech we would all definitely, absolutely be using in five years. Later I learned that Wired was really a watered-down sellout imitator of an even weirder magazine, Mondo 2000, which oh my god, get some of those back issues if you haven't heard of it.
Still, I hope my more tech-literate fans will forgive me if the hacking in Crossed Wires errs a little more on the side of "goofy movie logic" rather than actual fundamentals of programming. It's comics, y'all! If it looks good, it is good!
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
IJ: Absolutely! As an independent creator, I try to draw the kinds of stories I want to see more of in the world. Ever since it started, the Internet has continuously outgrown its clearly defined role as a source of information and, later, a faucet for entertainment. It's a place where people create, socialize, and learn to truly define themselves outside of the stifling context of meatspace. If you're reading this, chances are likely that you've been (or are still going!) through the messy, weird process of online self-realization, especially if you're queer. There haven't really been enough comics about finding yourself through technology that I really identified with, so if you want something done right...
CA: Crossed Wires is currently funding for its first volume on Kickstarter. What's the been like, and how would it feel to have the comic in a physical volume?
IJ: Truth be told, it's been a little scary! This isn't my first crowdsourcing campaign by any means; most recently I did one in 2013 to put my previous webcomic Epiphany into print. But this is my first on Kickstarter, and while there's been a fantastic level of support from longtime devotees and newcomers alike, we're still pretty far from our goal as of this writing with only a few short days until our deadline.
That's why we need your help, readers! As cool as I think computers are, books will forever be humanity's original killer app --- cheap, lightweight, capable of storing vast amounts of information, and all with no need to recharge. With webcomics especially there's also that sort of Velveteen Rabbit complex: you can post all the pages you want online, but the work as a whole doesn't feel real until you can hold it in your hands, does it? And as corny as it sounds, Crossed Wires Volume 1 can become real if just a few dozen more backers can love it very much. There's still a little time! Preorder your copy now, folks!
[Editor's note: The Crossed Wires Kickstarter has hit its target at the time of this article's publication, with two days left to go.]
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
IJ: I'm of course going to recommend my husband Nero O'Reilly's webcomic Carnivore Planet --- it's very of a piece with Crossed Wires in that it's about a gang of outcasts goofing up big-time while working outside the law, and Nero has such a beautiful and quietly expressive style.
Other good webcomics in the same vein as XW include: Egypt Urnash's Decrypting Rita, a story about what happens when you weaponize the Many Worlds theory; Barroo's Possibilia, a comic about endless millennial angst trapped inside an endless simulation; Icarus's Inhuman, thirteen years of high sci-fi still going strong; and Cate Wurtz's Crow Cillers, a labyrinth of queer YA horror meta-weirdness. Also, can I recommend a thing that isn't a webcomic? Second Life. Like, the game Second Life. It's completely fantastic, I don't care what anyone says.
You can follow Crossed Wires on its website and support it on Patreon and/or Kickstarter. For more from Iris Jay, follow them on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and most other forms of social media at @IrisJayComics. Jay and O'Reilly's podcast can be found here.
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”